Seeing the composition of the Gospel of John

Possible Constructions of The Gospel of John

Claude (Marie-Émile) Boismard 1916-2004

According to Marie-Émile Boismard, the Gospel of John may have gone through four hypothetical stages of composition. Each stage is intricately involved with the life of the Johannine community:

  1. Document C. This was a complete gospel stretching from John the Baptist to the resurrection of Jesus, written in Aramaic in Palestine about the year 50 AD. This may have been composed by the Beloved Disciple (whether he was John Son of Zebedee or Lazarus). Its Christology was primitive, with Jesus pictured as the Prophet-like-Moses or as the Danielic Son of Man. It had no pejorative attitude toward the Jews. The order of material in the document was close to that of the Synoptic Gospels, although it was more archaic than Mark.
  2. John IIA. Another writer (John the presbyter, mentioned by Papias) subsequently did two editions of Document C (and wrote the Epistles). He was a Jew who wrote this first edition in Palestine ca. A.D. 60-65. In it he added new material to C, and began to speak pejoratively of the world, as well as showing some opposition to the Jews- reflections of the changing life-situation of the community.
  3. John IIB. His second edition, done ca A.D. 90, drastically changed the order of the original to the order of the Gospel much as we now know it. He now knew all three Synoptic Gospels and some Pauline letters, and so had contact with other Christian groups. The writer had moved to Ephesus from Palestine, and this edition was in Greek. Persecution had left its trace in a strong aversion to “the Jews”; and Jesus was now presented as a pre-existent figure, clearly superior to Moses. Sacraments also came to the fore.
  4. John III. Still a third writer, an unknown Jewish Christian of the Johannine school at Ephesus, was the final redactor early in the second century. 1

Literary Seams in the text of the Gospel of John

Inconsistencies in John’s narrative, sometimes called literary seams, provide the strongest evidence that the author of John most likely used several written sources when constructing his text. This idea fits perfectly with the ideas of Marie-Emile Boismard, that the Gospel of John had stages of construction. Authors who compose their books by grafting several sources together don’t always neatly cover their tracks but sometimes leave literary seams. 2 The writer of the Gospel of John was not clumsy in my opinion, but he did leave clues as to how he comprised his text, which become more apparent as we examine the text attentively.

  1. In John 2, Jesus performs his first sign or miracle (there are 7 signs or miracles in the Gospel of John). Jesus turns water in wine at Cana in chapter 2, see John 2:1-11. In chapter 4, Jesus performs his “second miracle” (John 4:54) after returning to Galilee from Judea, healing the official’s son. The problem manifests itself when you read what happens between the first and second miracle, for John 2:23 tells the reader that while Jesus was in Jerusalem many people believed in his name “when they saw the miracles which he did.” How can this be? How can he do the first miracle, and then other miracles, and then the second miracle? This is an example of a literary seam, something which illustrates the fact that the author is using sources to assemble his material, to create this text.
  2. In John 2:23, Jesus is in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea. While he is there, he engages in a discussion with Nicodemus that lasts until John 3:21. Then the text says, “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.” (John 3:23) We have a problem here – Jesus is already in Judea, for he is in its capital, the city of Jerusalem, speaking with Nicodemus in John 3:1-21! So here we have another literary seam, evidence that we have a new text stitched into this account right at John 3:23, for it doesn’t fit the narrative flow of John 3 because it does not make sense. Jesus is already in Judea.
  3. In John 5:1, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, where he spends the entire chapter healing and teaching. The author’s comment after this discourse, however, is somewhat puzzling: “After these things, Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias” (John 6:1). How could Jesus go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee if he isn’t already on one of its sides? He could not possibly go to the “other side of the Sea of Galilee,” for he was in city of Jerusalem just before John 6:1, approximately 123 km to the south! How can we explain John 6:1? One likely explanation for this problem is that we must have a literary seam, a place where the author stitched together narratives that didn’t exactly “fit,” but that worked for the author because it fit his intent.
  4. In his final meal with his disciples in the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of the Twelve and then the disciples share the Passover with the Savior. After the exchange with Judas, and after Judas leaves to go and betray Jesus, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, whither goest thou?” (John 13:36) A few verses later in the next chapter, Thomas essentially asks the same question. He says, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) This is where we seem to have another likely literary seam. Two apostles specifically asked Jesus where he was going. After some instruction, Jesus says, “I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” (John 16:5) This exchange makes perfect sense if we see this as separately gathered source material sewn together by a later redactor or author working to improve separate texts into a unified narrative.
  5. At the end of John 14, after delivering a sermon of about two chapters (John 13-14), Jesus says to his disciples, “Arise, let us go hence” (John 14:31). The reader of John might expect Jesus and the eleven disciples to get up and move to another location, say, the Garden of Gethsemane, but instead Jesus begins another discourse: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandmen…” (John 15:1) Jesus gives us some wonderful teaching, truths about the Comforter, his resurrection, his nature as the Son of God, and the Intercessory Prayer. This is some of the greatest scripture in the New Testament. But they certainly haven’t got up and left, in fact, the disciples do not “get up” until John 18, where we read, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples” (John 18:1). Why would Jesus tell his apostles get up and leave, only to give a beautiful speech for three chapters? This all makes sense if we see the text containing these literary seams.

Perhaps John was constructed using “The Signs of Jesus” as a source document

Some of the literary seams that appear in John suggest that the author incorporated a source that illustrated the seven signs or miracles of Jesus to persuade the readers that he was the Messiah sent to the world. There are seven signs in the Gospel of John (eight if you include the resurrection of Jesus), and seven is a number that represents completion or perfection. The seven signs in the Gospel of John are:

  1. The changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 – “the first of the signs”
  2. The healing the official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
  3. The healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
  4. The feeding the 5,000 in John 6:5-14
  5. Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
  6. The healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
  7. The raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-45

This book of miracles or signs would have been a missionary chronicle designed to persuade the Jews of the divinity of Jesus Christ through his miraculous deeds and his words. At some point in history, this text would have been combined with other sayings of Jesus similar to The Gospel of Thomas or Q, that related to things that Jesus did or said. The combination of these documents would have formed something comparable to what we have today in the Gospel of John. This way, in the Gospel of John, Jesus not only feeds 5,000 in a miraculous manner as he does in other accounts, he states that he is the bread of life. John takes Jesus to a higher Christological plane, for in John’s account, Jesus not only heals the blind, he proclaims himself to be the light of the whole world. John takes the claims and deeds of Jesus from a sayings document and elevates him to a higher plane, what scholars call a high Christology. 3

The Two Source Theory of the Farewell Discourse

A theory that the author of chapters 13-18 of John used two sources to construct this text has risen as a possible solution to some of the literary seams in this text. I will call this the “Two Source Theory” or “Multiple Source Theory.”4 To illustrate how this theory works, we need to see the literary problems with the Farewell Discourse. There seems to be a repetition of material between chapters 14 and 16, with two literary seams, one involving the questions about where Jesus is going (John 13:36; 14:5 and 16:5) and the other seam regarding Jesus’ command for the disciples to “Arise, let us go hence” (John 14:31; 18:1).

The Two Source Theory solves these problems in the text. Let us assume that the author of this text had at his table two separate accounts (A and B). Let us assume that account A retells the narrative contained in John 13, 14, and 18, and account B gives us John 15, 16, and 17. If the author then took these two accounts and then wove them together forming one continuous text, inserting source B into the heart of source A between John 14 and 18, this would resolve the problems of the literary seams discussed. This would explain the repetition between chapters 14 and 16 because that author used two accounts of the same event and grafted them into one account, leaving the clues of both separate accounts in the text for us to see.

This helps us to understand why Jesus said, “But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” (John 16:5) because in source B, John 15-17, nobody had asked Jesus where he was going, for Peter and Thomas asked Jesus this question in another source, the A account of the Farewell Address. Also, in the A source, when Jesus says it is time to get up and move in John 14:31, the apostles obey, because the narrative picks up again in John 18:1 when they do get up and leave! I see this theory as one that maintains strong explanatory power.

The Chiastic Nature of the Farewell Discourse

Another concept related to the construction the Gospel of John is the idea that the author wanted to use a literary convention called chiasmus to share the story of Jesus with the world. This is something that I will address in another post, an argument that has some traction and helps us to understand the Gospel of John at a deeper level.


  1. Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times, Paulist Press, 1979, p. 178-179. See Marie-Emile Boismard, L’Evangile de Jean (Synopse des Quatres Evanglies en francais, III; ed. M.-E. Boismard and A. Lamouille; Paris: Cerf, 1977.
  2. Gary Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John: A Practical Guide, Baker Academic, 2013, p. 65. In trying to explain these difficulties, scholars have come up with a plethora of options. Burge writes: “Current explanations are that the author never finished the Gospel (W.F. Howard; Walter Grundmann), that the author produced two editions that have been artificially joined (Pierson Parker), that John made later insertions and spoiled the original text, or that John wrote with disjointed stories (Rudolph Schnackenburg, Ernst Käsemann). William Wrede thought that John was a confused simpleton. Eduard Meyer suggested that he was clumsy. Walter Bauer thought that John simply could not write. This at least is more charitable than Ernest Renan, who in 1867 attributed the aporias to John’s increasing senility!” (p. 67) See also Francis J. Moloney, Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1989, p. 370.
  3. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, Nicholas Perrin, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship, Intervarsity Press, 2013, p. 402. While many scholars see these different Christologies as the result of an evolution in early Christianity’s understanding of who Jesus is and what He did (for instance, see Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to New Testament Christology[New York: Paulist Press, 1994], 121–24, 136–41, 196–213), recognizing that Mark’s “low” Christology emphasizes God proclaiming Jesus as His son at baptism does not necessarily mean that Mark did not know that Jesus was divinely conceived, nor does it necessarily demonstrate that he knew nothing of Jesus’s premortal role (see Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Eric D. Huntsman, and Thomas A. Wayment, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006], 10–11, 132–33).
  4. Wayne Brouwer, The literary development of John 13-17: A Chiastic Reading, Dissertation 1999, McMaster University, p. 139-145. Brouwer acknowledges the strengths of the multiple source theory in his dissertation when he states, “by far the most common explanation for Jesus’ failure to acknowledge the earlier questions (“where are you going?”), is the assertion that two or more textual sources were blended without careful reflection or polish by the final editor. The traditions stitched together at this point repeat the same basic farewell discourse, but they arise from divergent points of view” (page 145). See also: Daniel J. Scholz, Jesus in the Gospels and Acts: Introducing the New Testament, p. 166. Scholz writes: “Applying the principle of Johannine literary “seams,” scholars argue that John 13:1-17:26 actually contains two farewell discourses. According to this argument, John 13:1-14:31 seems to end the farewell discourse between Jesus and his disciples with Jesus’ words, “Get up, let us go” (14:31), after which the reader expects them to depart. But they do not actually depart until John 18:1… Recent studies have raised serious questions about the case for two farewell discourses, however. John 14:31 may simply be a “false exit,” a common feature of drama found in Greco-Roman literature.

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One Response to Seeing the composition of the Gospel of John

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